Natham and Mariett (Huntoon) Montana Fitch, 9 North 48 West
The Fitch family had a fearless patriarch and three sons who rode herd over a massive spread northwest of Gillette. There in 1890, "with a gun and a rope and a hat full of hope, they planted their family tree."
The Fitch ranch remains - it oozed the romance, loyalty and courage that defined the American West.
Fitches extended that loyalty to the town they helped build - Gillette.
By 1890, Edward Fitch was ready to put down some roots. His father, Naham, had dragged his growing family across seven virtually uninhabited Western territories nine different times starting in 1859.
Naham Fitch had a restless soul - he'd lost both parents as a kid in Ohio and then married the daughter of a New Englander named Scribner Huntoon. Marietta managed to raise all seven children to adulthood as Naham bounced them across the prairie to Iowa; then to a freighting job in Nebraska City; down to Denver; up to Helena to run dairy cows; over to Utah to open a mercantile; back to Iowa; later to Kansas; back to Colorado to run cattle and finally, in 1879, to Nebraska again to run a boarding house.
Mary Sutherland and they had six children. One of them, Bill Fitch, later took over the ranch.
A Campbell County commissioner for six consecutive terms, Bill saw his grandfather's favorite town through 24 years and $1.4 billion of growth. His wife, Helen, was a local English teacher for 33 years. The 98-year-old ranch 37 miles west of town was sold recently by Glenn's grandchildren to Crump Land and Livestock.
The northernmost sections of the sprawling outfit went to eldest son Frank and his wife, Edna (Hardy), while Chuck chose a site on the bank of Wild Horse with his wife, Cora (Hall).
In 1919, Chuck and Frank joined with their father to greatly expand the Fitch holdings with the purchase of the Keelines' illustrious 4J Ranch south of Gillette. But just months later, everything unraveled.
Just as the sympathetic Hoss Cartwright would have, Chuck employed an African American cowpuncher named Walter Jackson, whose wife also cared for the Fitch children. Jackson had been the first black baby born in Montana Territory in 1887, the son of a former Texas trail hand who died before he was born.
"One day in 1919, Frank Fitch had sent me somewhere and was supposed to ride over and meet me there later, so when he didn't show up, I went back to see what happened," Jackson said. He saw Frank's horse at the barn, and entered to discover the body of 37-year-old Frank hanging from a rafter.
"They tore down that old barn," said Chuck's granddaughter, 84-year-old Pat Laramore. "As far as I know, they didn't have a clue why Frank took his life."
Frank's widow, Edna, sold his land to the Eaton family, who continue to winter their dude horses on the ranch. The health of Edward (or "Dunny" as the grandchildren called him, a nickname that stuck), 60, began failing in 1924 and that's when he and Chuck sold off the 4J Ranch. Edward died in 1925.
Chuck and Cora raised two children, Ed and Norma, and passed the original ranch on to Ed, who began running sheep with his wife, Zelma (Weaver), in the 1920s. Their only child, Pat, was born in 1927. Ed added to the ranch by claiming one of Campbell County's last homesteads in 1933 before the BLM took over federal lands.
"We soon found that our country was too rough to run sheep successfully," said Zelma, who noted that wolves, mountain lions and coyotes also ravaged the herds. "After a few years, we went back to raising cattle. And Chuck always had his horses, so every spring they'd gather them for branding and again in the fall for selling."
Where Chuck was a barrel of a man, Ed was tall and slender like his grandfather. The men sold thoroughbreds, wild Paint mustangs and remount studs. Ed campaigned racehorses throughout Montana and Canada, and Chuck crossed thoroughbred mares on his Percheron stallion, selling the offspring as light artillery horses.
"I can remember getting up with my cousin, Bob, on the roof of an old log barn to watch," said Pat. "You could see the dust and hear those horses gathered in the corral, 200 at a time as the cavalry officers looked them over. They wore tight pants and high-topped, polished boots with little spurs and riding crops. They were pretty out of place on the ranch."
Wild Horse is one of few Campbell County creeks with constant running water, so traveling to Gillette meant having the car dragged across the creek twice by a team of horses and opening and closing 13 gates along the way.
One thing the Fitches have had was women - seven generations of strong wives and mothers who have kept the ranch going for 121 years. If Phoebe was the ranch's shining light and old-fashioned Cora its biggest fan, Pat became its stalwart defender. The astute little girl was the shadow of her grandfather, Chuck.
"He would take her everywhere with him," said Pat's daughter Kandy, 56. "She learned almost everything she knew about how to ride and think and what to do from him."
Like her mother, Pat was a teacher and worked full-time to help support the ranch for more than 30 years as she and her husband, Bob Laramore, raised Kandy and her brother Kit, 58. When Ed had a heart attack in the 1960s and retired, Pat and Bob took over the ranch, switching from Hereford cattle to Angus.
"Mom has been the backbone of the ranch," Kandy said. "Not to take anything away from my dad, but she's always helped financially and been the strong one that kept everybody together."
As her parents aged and Bob was diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s, it was Kandy's turn. She had started out as a teacher, but forged a successful career in Denver in the oil and gas industry before returning to Gillette in 2000.
"I gave my great-grandmother Cora a promise," Kandy said. "She asked me to please take care of the ranch. I get all choked up talking about it. Dad got cancer and I knew then they were going to need some help."
Kandy moved back to the ranch full-time in 2004 with her husband, Darren Barton, and built a house across Wild Horse from her mother (Bob Laramore lives in Pioneer Manor). Kandy and Darren are partners with her parents on the ranch.
They run 250 to 300 head of cattle and are raising horses there for the first time since Kandy's grandfather's era. This time, they are high-performance roping and barrel racing mounts.
Over the decades, the quiet and solitude of the rough, craggy draws has been broken by methane service roads, and the teepee rings once so prominent are barely discernible on a nearby hill. Still, more families have maintained historic ranches in this 15-mile-long Wild Horse valley than perhaps any other in the county, including the Fitches, Floyds, Mooneys and Clabaughs.
Chuck and Cora Fitch's grand old log house - along with priceless family history in photos and books and silver - burned to the ground in the 1950s when a Wyoming wind fanned a spark from the coal stove. Ed and Zelma's old house was torn down five years ago.
"Practically everything has been replaced over the years," Pat said. "Not much is the same anymore on this creek."
Except, that is, for the family loyalty that spurred Johnny Cash to describe, in his own Bonanza lyrics, how the Cartwrights were always "riding along, four men strong, together." Kandy's son, Jeff Sanders, packs his own gun around the ranch when he can get away from his duties as a Marine in San Diego.
"To me, money doesn't mean as much as family does, and holding onto what you've learned throughout the generations," Kandy said. "That's pretty important to me. This ranch is part of our history and who we are and what we're made of."
Montana had a cancelled document for a quarter in 17, 9N 48W in 1908, Logan County, Colorado.That was because it was recorded as 9N 48W, instead of the correct 9N 58W in Weld County.